Published:  2018-05-01

Infant Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Activity during Baseline, Stress and Recovery: Interactions with Prenatal Adversity Predict Physical Aggression in Toddlerhood

Authors:  J. Suurland, K. B. van der Heijden, S. C. J. Huijbregts, S. H. M. van Goozen, H. Swaab

Tags:  Aggression, Infancy, Pre-ejection period, Prenatal risk, Respiratory sinus arrhythmia, Stress reactivity

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Exposure to prenatal adversity is associated with aggression later in life. Individual differences in autonomic nervous system (ANS) functioning, specifically nonreciprocal activation of the parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic (SNS) nervous systems, increase susceptibility to aggression, especially in the context of adversity. Previous work examining interactions between early adversity and ANS functioning in infancy is scarce and has not examined interaction between PNS and SNS. This study examined whether the PNS and SNS moderate the relation between cumulative prenatal risk and early physical aggression in 124 children (57% male). Cumulative risk (e.g., maternal psychiatric disorder, substance (ab)use, and social adversity) was assessed during pregnancy. Parasympathetic respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and sympathetic pre-ejection period (PEP) at baseline, in response to and during recovery from emotional challenge were measured at 6 months. Physical aggression and non-physical aggression/oppositional behavior were measured at 30 months. The results showed that cumulative prenatal risk predicted elevated physical aggression and non-physical aggression/oppositional behavior in toddlerhood; however, the effects on physical aggression were moderated by PNS and SNS functioning. Specifically, the effects of cumulative risk on physical aggression were particularly evident in children characterized by low baseline PNS activity and/or by nonreciprocal activity of the PNS and SNS, characterized by decreased activity (i.e., coinhibition) or increased activity (i.e., coactivation) of both systems at baseline and/or in response to emotional challenge. These findings extend our understanding of the interaction between perinatal risk and infant ANS functioning on developmental outcome.